I magine that you are a time traveler, two hundred years in the future.
It is August, and beastly hot in this sinkhole of humidity that was once called Rome. Here and there you hear the bark of a feral dog, or the shouting and laughter of feral children. Ivy and nightshade creep up the sides of the buildings roundabout. Some of those buildings are two thousand years old. They are holding up better than those more recently built. In the old ones, marble facing crumbles away to reveal brick. In the new ones, brick facing crumbles away to reveal sticks and chalk and empty space.
You enter one of the older buildings, once a chapel. You have to clear away thickets of weed and scrub pine to do so. The stench of wetness, rat droppings, and mold almost makes you give it up. But eventually you get inside.
You look up at the ceiling. You had told yourself that you wouldn't, but you do. There you see the ruins of painted scenes that you can hardly identify, partly because nature has begun to reclaim them too, partly because you yourself are like a stranger in a strange land and do not understand the signs, and partly because they have been grotesquely vandalized with black and red spray paint.
How the boys did it, you have no idea. But it is so. The nude figures, colossal and noble, have been scrawled over with obscenities and foolishness. Adam, waiting for the finger of God to touch him to life, has been made over into a Priapus. So has Eve. Everywhere you turn, it is contempt, stupidity, and the darkened imagination of unhappy man: bodies mangled, exaggerated into cartoons of lust, made hideous; men that are not men, and women that are not women.
A pope long ago—and what was a pope, anyway?—said of these paintings that they offered a veritable theology of the body, of man made in the image of God, male and female, each sex to be made complete by the other. You cannot see it. You see parts, as of machines; holes and things that plug them up. Perhaps the people who made art like this were merely sentimental. For you can call upon nothing in your experience that would justify this reverence of the body, this sense that the sexes are beautiful, and that they long like Adam and Eve for the one who is like them but not like them, a mutual longing. If you believed in anything, you might shed a tear. You don't. But your eyes swim for a moment anyway.
What We Have Lost
What am I describing? Not something that might happen. It is something that has happened. We have lost what even fallen man used to know. We have lost a sense of the exalted beauty of each sex. I am not saying that people are no longer attracted to their spouses. I am saying that when it comes to this beauty that characterizes each sex in and of itself, we do not feel it. We must not feel it, because we do not talk about it; it inspires no art, no folk music, no sweet customs whereby we teach young people how to see it and appreciate it.
Picture in your mind a healthy boy of eight or nine years. He does not have the pallor of someone who has lived under fluorescent lamps all his life. His hair is cut in a boyish way, and it has that slight craziness about it that you get when the hair is a little thick and unruly. His shoulders are broad by comparison with his hips. He has what Marilynne Robinson happily called "skinny boy strength." He is a little man.
Now, what sort of hideous imagination could look at that boy and hope that one day his skull will be whittled down, his voice, already showing the signs of tenor and bass, will be thwarted by mechanical and pharmaceutical means, his body will be pumped up with carcinogens so that it will resemble a poor imitation of a girl, and his developing manhood will be lopped off, and his crotch eventually carved up and troweled out to provide a receptacle for seed that goes nowhere? It is a hideousness that might give Josef Mengele second thoughts.
Or look at the little girl. Her hair is long and slender, falling like water upon her shoulders. It gleams in the sun. Her hips are broad relative to her shoulders, and her flesh is soft, because she is the sex that must bear children, and the fat that will allow her to do so makes itself manifest already in the curves of her body. Her voice is higher than her brother's, and sweeter; as long as she lives it will retain something of that childlike quality, which speaks without words, speaks about gentleness and a large capacity for love. Now imagine those hips shaved away, the developing breasts cut off, her body pumped up with carcinogens so that it will resemble a poor and ugly imitation of a boy—a bearded lady, fitted with a prosthesis, a mockery of manhood.
Who is enamored of things so pathetic, so miserable, so sad?
We are, that's who. We are.
Delusions of Gender
People have rightly noted the breathtaking illogic of it all. We are to believe at once that there are no differences between a man and a woman, and that somebody can really be a woman trapped in a man's body, or vice-versa. It seems inexplicable. Let me try then to explain it. It is one of those cases where the explanation will make the syndrome seem all the worse and more intractable, but things are as they are, and I will try to express what I see.
First, only people who are almost numb to the wonderful differences between the sexes can ever suppose that you can make a transition from one to the other. It is like imagining that you could leap over the Grand Canyon if only you had a running start. And we are taught this numbness. We have the numbness drummed into our souls. If I were to say, at a typical university, "How fine a thing it is that women have those hips that can cradle a child," or "A good woman will think of more things to do for other people in a day than a good man will in a month, and she will actually do some of them," I would be accused of misogyny. That accusation can only make sense if it is understood that I am implying that men likewise must bear some wondrous things about them, for which women should be grateful. Thus it is that we must disdain women in order to promote the interests of females who wish to deny a great part of their womanhood, not to mention the manhood of men.
For the relations between the sexes are not now marked by gratitude. They are marked by suspicion, resentment, and recrimination. And these things, I suggest, help to explain why someone would fall into delusions of gender. It is not so much that the boy wants desperately to be a girl, about which he knows nothing, as that he wants desperately not to be a boy , because he has been taught that it is bad to be a boy. Boys do terrible things. Most of all, they grow up to be men, and men do terrible things; men are what is wrong with everything in the world. The girl who wants to be a boy, likewise, really wants desperately not to be a girl , because to be a girl is to be physically weak and vulnerable, and the object of innumerable offenses committed by men.
I am not saying that these feelings are mad. We are living in a jungle. That is the sexual revolution. It is not a tulip garden, as its early and relatively innocent promoters promised. It is a jungle. And in a jungle, you have beasts of prey. The worst of the sexes comes forth: aggressive and obnoxious men, sly and treacherous women, each sex hurting the other, and neither sex taking any responsibility for the general wickedness. If you are 25 years old and you have taken part in the jungle, you have been hurt badly and you have done your share of hurting others, too. The jungle makes good people dubious, dubious people bad, and bad people monsters. That should not surprise us.
I do not think there can be a bottom to the trouble. If we say that it will come to a stop because logic, biology, and human experience are all against it, I reply that we have already repudiated all of those things. We are standing on a crater whose floor continually collapses beneath us. Says Milton's Satan:
Whilst they adore me on the throne of Hell,
With diadem and scepter high advanced,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery; such joy ambition finds.
What is in the offing? Children by incest, confusing the categories of sibling and spouse; children by manufacture, confusing the categories of nature and artifice; the trans-human, in large part already among us as we replace face-to-face encounters with those mediated by machine, confusing the categories of animate and inanimate; "breaking the binary," confusing the categories of being and not-being; and subjecting all things to the dictates of individual wills molded by the machinery of mass phenomena: ants in an anthill, thinking themselves to be gods, and repudiating the Word by whom all things were made.
I have said that you cannot live in half a jungle. You are not going to be half-mangled by half a tiger. You cannot take up residence on the inside wall of a volcano. There is no half-disdain for the sexes. It does no good to have the Sistine Chapel somewhat less vandalized. You cannot make Adam half obscene. I do not want man to be three-quarters human and one-quarter artificial.
I am not, however, asking for perfection. Only for humanity, ordinary fallen humanity, sinful but not mad, often ungrateful but not essentially so, daft sometimes but still capable of loving man for being man and woman for being woman, with a heart for beauty, and for the innocence of children.
How to bring it about? A topic for another day. We are, I think, too far gone to hope that ordinary measures will suffice. Says the poet Herbert:
A heart alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy power doth cut.
Not even diamond is as hard as the heart of man when he has consigned his mind and soul over to sin. In this state only the merciful hand of God will do: to soften that heart in the corrosive bath of his grace. Let it be soon, O Lord. Smite us and save us all.
Anthony Esolen is a faculty member and Writer-in-Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including: Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).